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Relationship Science has aided our understanding of human behaviour and is the foundation of human conditions. Many theorists have contributed to the field of Relationship Science (particularly Bowlby’s (1969) Attachment Theory). The attachment theory is fundamentally based on the idea that humans need intimacy in order to form close relationships (Hazan and Shaver, 1990). Research shows that one’s experience of attachment in childhood, can have an effect on their adult relationships with significant others. However, there are limitations to this claim. This essay aims to provide a critical evaluation of the key concepts of the attachment theory (in both infants and adults) and its contribution to Relationship Science.
Relationship Science can be defined as the Science of Intimate Relationships. Relationship intimacy is generally used to define sexual familiarity with significant others as well as strong emotional attachments (i.e. love) (Jamieson, 2007). Relationship Science has had difficulty finding its voice among other Sciences over the years. Many questions have been asked as to whether Psychology and Relationship Science is a “real” Science.
The main benefit of Relationship Science is that it has helped to improve our understanding of human behaviour. Relationships are the foundation of human conditions as we continuously live our lives relationships and they are great contributors to one’s quality of life (Berscheid, 1999). According to Kelley et al. (1983), relationship science is an essential Science as it is necessary for further development of social, behavioural and biological sciences. Social Sciences have played a role in helping us to understand behaviour in natural environments (i.e. the way people behave in their on-going relationships).
It has been critiqued that Relationship Science is based on Psychological Myths and Therapeutic Techniques with poor empirical evidence. Bradbury (2002) argued that one key issue with relationships is that they are a complex topic to try and understand which therefore means that they are difficult to define. Lilienfeld (2012) observed that many people may misunderstand psychological principles in their personal lives and tend to make assumptions about real human experiences. However, Fincham and Beach (2010) argued that Relationship Science is beneficial for incorporating human concepts.
There are many different theories that have supported further research and development of Relationship Science.
Bowlby’s (1969) attachment theory is a highly regarded theory that has provided the foundation for the development in the field of Relationship Science as it aims to explore the intimacy of relationships in one’s lifetime. This theory states that human beings need intimacy in order to have close bonds within their relationships. It has been useful in understanding the dynamics of behaviour in close relationships (i.e. caregivers and close partners.
Attachment begins in infancy and continues throughout one’s lifetime. John Bowlby’s (1969) attachment theory is fundamentally based on the idea that human beings (as well as other species) need emotional intimacy from infancy to adulthood. Bowlby (1969) claimed that human beings are born with the attachment behavioural system and this motivates humans to seek closeness to significant others. He argued that the development of attachment to the caregiver depends on the quality of caregiving that is experienced within parent-child relationships and believed that parents are a secure protection base for infants (Bowlby, 1969). The three major systems associated with Bowlby (1969) are attachment, sex and caregiving.
Mary Ainsworth’s (1969) attachment theory derived from Bowlby (1969) and also contributed to the field of Relationship Science. She observed attachment styles in infants and separated attachment into three main categories; secure (the child uses the caregiver as a safe base to explore their environment), anxious-ambivalent (the child usually has very clingy and dependent behaviour but will reject attachment from the caregiver when they try to interact) and anxious-avoidant (the child is emotionally and physically independent from the caregiver).
Mary Ainsworth (1969) carried out a laboratory procedure called the Strange Situation. It was designed to examine the balance of attachment and exploratory behaviours under conditions of low and high stress in one-year olds. In this experiment, the mother and infant were introduced to a laboratory play room where they were joined by an unfamiliar woman. Whilst the stranger played with the baby, the mother left the room for a short time and then returned shortly afterwards. This was repeated several times. Ainsworth found that infants explored the playroom and toys more energetically in the presence of their mothers rather than in the presence of the stranger. The children considered to be anxious-ambivalent would cry and want contact but would not cuddle the mother when she picked them up. Instead, they showed ambivalence by kicking or hitting their mothers. The anxious-avoidant group of children avoided their mother when she came back in the room (even though they searched for her while she was gone).
Data showed that those infants that had been ambivalent or avoidant towards their mothers had a less harmonious relationship with them at home than those who had interaction or contact with their mothers when they were reunited (Ainsworth, Bell & Stayton, 1974). There were some limitations to this experiment because it can be considered unethical to distress children of such a young age. Another consideration is that just because the children reacted in a certain way when reunited with their mothers, that does not necessarily mean that they do not have a good relationship at home. It could simply mean that they reacted the way they did because of their feelings towards the situation at the time. Another limitation is that this experiment is based on separations in stressful situations rather than non-stressful situations. Behaviours of being separated and reunited should not be the only factors that one can use to define attachment.
One limitation of Bowlby and Ainsworth’s theories of attachment are that both theorists base their argument on the idea that the mother is the primary caregiver for infants. However, children have more than one caregiver in their childhood (i.e. fathers and siblings). Harris (1998) argues that a child’s peers have more of an influence on them than their parents. She argues that the care that a parent gives their child when they are born does not necessarily have an effect on their attachment styles later on in life. She believes that parents do not shape a child’s personality and character as children tend to learn more things from their peers (as they want to fit into society), than they do from their caregivers. The attachment style of an infant at the age of one is not necessarily the way it attaches at an older age (i.e. the stability of attachment depends on the stability of one’s environment).
Researchers of attachment have identified four major styles of attachment in adults (Bartholomew and Horowitz, 1991). These are; secure (positive beliefs of self and close others), fearful-avoidant (low feelings of self and negative expectations of others), preoccupied (feeling that others are not invested in them in the same way that they are with others), dismissing-avoidant (denying the importance of close relationships and have a strong commitment to independence).
The work of Bowlby (1969) and Ainsworth et al. (1978), has become the foundation for the study of attachment and intimacy in adults. While infants are assumed to have an inborn tendency to bond with their primary caregivers, adults have some control over the degree to which they become attached to others. Bowlby (1969) suggested that early interactions with significant others arise expectations and beliefs that potentially shape social perceptions and behaviour regarding what relationships should be like in adulthood. Avoidance in adulthood reflects the degree to which individuals feel comfortable with closeness and emotional intimacy in relationships. People who score higher on avoidance tend to be less invested in their relationships and strive to be more psychologically and emotionally independent of their partners.
According to Hazan and Shaver (1987), working models of attachment continue to guide and shape close relationship behaviour throughout life. As people build new relationships, they rely partly on previous expectations about how others are likely to behave and feel towards them. The theory suggests that early caregiving experiences can partly influence how people behave in their adult romantic relationships.
Satisfying intimate relationships tend to be the most important source of many people’s happiness. Equally, isolation and loneliness can contribute to psychological and physical disorders (Bartholomew, 1990). People tend to develop emotional bonds with their partners in adulthood and are motivated to maintain these relationships overtime. The attachment theory shows that although most secure attached individuals find is relatively easy to trust their partners in adulthood (particularly due to the love and affection they received in their childhood), many insecurely attached individuals find it somewhat difficult to trust their partners (due to the lack of affection received in childhood).
Avoidance may stem from either the fear of intimacy or the lack of interest or motivation to become intimate with others (Butzer & Campbell, 2008). In infancy, attachment behaviour is only adaptive if someone (i.e. a parent) is available to provide protection and support. A parent provides protection and care to the infant. However, in adult relationships, these roles (attachment and caregiving) are more difficult to separate. Either partner can be characterised at one time or another as stressed, threatened or helpless and hence needing responsive and supportive care from the other. Similarly, either partner can be characterised as being more helpful, empathic or protective. In a long-term relationship, the attachment and caregiving roles are frequently interchanged.
One of the main limitations of Bowbly’s (1969) attachment theory was that it was mainly studied on infants. Hazan and Shaver (1990) further developed this aspect of relationship science and explored adult relationships and attachment. They found that adults who lacked attachment also lacked intimacy. One criticism for this theory is that in non-Western societies, fewer children are closely attached to their caregiver. Eastern cultures do not tend to show a lot of affection to their children at a young age. However, children still grow up in society and become well-adjusted in adult romantic relationships. This therefore means that although attachment at a young age can impact close relationships in adulthood, there are other factors in the place of attachment that are helping to form these close relationships.
Butzer and Campbell (2008) carried out an experiment based on adult attachment, sexual satisfaction and relationship satisfaction. 116 married couples aged 21-75 completed a questionnaire based on their relationships. Results showed that participants with higher levels of anxiety and avoidance had lower levels of sexual satisfaction. However, those that were more avoidant also reported to have lower levels of sexual satisfaction. The relationship between sexual and marital satisfaction was stronger for those individuals that were anxiously attached compared to those that were attachment avoidant. Although this experiment was useful for exploring adult attachment, one limitation of this study was that majority of the participants that filled out this questionnaire were undergraduate students. It can be argued that these students have not had the chance to be involved in a long-term relationship.
The attachment theory has contributed to the field of relationship science as it is evident that attachment plays a key role in the formation of intimate relationships. Attachment can help to shape human behaviour. One can argue that the love received from a caregiver in infancy has an effect on their formation of close relationships in adulthood. However, the idea of sexual satisfaction in relationships is not explored as much. Research of relationship science and attachment has been useful for practicing psychologists. It has enabled the practice for marital counselling and has allowed psychologists to understand the key issues behind divorce and separation (i.e. the reasons for the lack of intimacy, satisfaction and emotional difficulties in relationships). Relationship Science is a developing field and has potential for future development
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